North and west of the capital, the unwieldy urban mass of Greater Bangkok peters out into the vast, well-watered central plains, a region that for centuries has grown the bulk of the nation’s food and been a tantalizing temptation for neighbouring power-mongers. The most densely populated region of Thailand, with sizeable towns sprinkled among patchworks of paddy, orchards and sugar-cane fields, the plains are fundamental to Thailand’s agricultural economy. Its rivers are the key to this area’s fecundity, especially the Nan and the Ping, whose waters irrigate the northern plains before merging to form the Chao Phraya, which meanders slowly south through Bangkok and out into the Gulf of Thailand. Further west, the Mae Khlong River sustains the many market gardens and fills the canals that dominate the hinterlands of the estuary at Samut Songkhram, a centre for some of the most authentic floating markets in the country.
Continue reading to find out more about...
Sited at the confluence of the Kwai Yai and Kwai Noi rivers, the town of Kanchanaburi has long attracted visitors to the notorious Bridge over the River Kwai and is now well established as a travellers’ hangout, with everything from floating raft-house accommodation to waterside boutique hotels. Few tourists venture much further upriver, except as passengers on the remaining stretch of the Death Railway – the most tangible wartime reminder of all – but the remote little hilltop town of Sangkhlaburi holds enough understated allure to make the extra kilometres worthwhile.
On the plains north of Bangkok, the historic heartland of the country, the major sites are the ruined ancient cities, most of which are conserved as historical parks, covering the spectrum of Thailand’s art and architecture. Closest to Bangkok, Ayutthaya served as the country’s capital for the four hundred years prior to the 1782 foundation of Bangkok, and its ruins evoke an era of courtly sophistication. A short hop to the north, the remnants of Lopburi hark back to an earlier time, when the predominantly Hindu Khmers held sway over this region.
A separate nucleus of sites in the northern neck of the plains centres on Sukhothai, birthplace of the Thai kingdom in the thirteenth century. The buildings and sculpture produced during the Sukhothai era are the acme of Thai art, and the restored ruins of the country’s first official capital are the best place to appreciate them, though two satellite cities – Si Satchanalai and Kamphaeng Phet – provide further incentives to linger in the area, and the city of Phitsanulok also serves as a good base. West of Sukhothai, on the Burmese border, the town of Mae Sot makes a refreshing change from ancient history and is the departure point for the rivers and waterfalls of Umphang, a remote border region that’s becoming increasingly popular for trekking and rafting.
Chiang Mai makes an obvious next stop after exploring the sights north of Bangkok, chiefly because the Northern Rail Line makes connections painless. Or you could branch east into Isaan, by train or bus. It’s also possible to fly out of Sukhothai, Phitsanulok and Mae Sot.
Even if you’re just passing through, you can’t miss the star attraction of NAKHON PATHOM: the enormous stupa Phra Pathom Chedi dominates the skyline of this otherwise unexceptional provincial capital, 56km west of Bangkok. Probably Thailand’s oldest town, Nakhon Pathom (derived from the Pali for “First City”) is thought to be the point at which Buddhism first entered the region now known as Thailand, more than two thousand years ago. Then the capital of a sizeable Mon kingdom, it was important enough to rate a visit from two missionaries dispatched by King Ashoka of India, one of Buddhism’s great early evangelists. Even today, the province of Nakhon Pathom retains a high Buddhist profile – aside from housing the country’s holiest chedi, it also contains Phuttamonthon, Thailand’s most important Buddhist sanctuary and home of its supreme patriarch.
Nakhon Pathom is easily seen on a day-trip from Kanchanaburi or Bangkok – alternatively, since it’s on train lines heading west to Kanchanaburi and south to Hua Hin, Surat Thani and Malaysia, the town works well as a half-day stopover from Bangkok. Everything described below – with the exception of Sanam Chan Palace and the Contemporary Thai Art Centre – is within ten minutes’ walk of the chedi.
Rarely visited by foreign tourists and yet within easy reach of Bangkok, the tiny estuarine province of Samut Songkhram is nourished by the Mae Khlong River as it meanders through on the last leg of its route to the Gulf. Fishing is an important industry round here, and big wooden boats are still built in riverside yards near the estuary; further inland, fruit is the main source of income, particularly pomelos, lychees, guavas and coconuts. But for visitors it is the network of three hundred canals woven around the river, and the traditional way of life the waterways still support, that makes a stay of a few days or more appealing. As well as some of the most interesting floating markets in Thailand – notably at Amphawa and Tha Ka – there are chances to witness traditional cottage industries such as palm-sugar production and bencharong ceramic-painting, plus more than a hundred historic temples to admire, a number of them dating back to the reign of Rama II, who was born in the province. The other famous sons of the region are Eng and Chang, the “original” Siamese twins, who grew up in the province (see Eng and Chang, the Siamese twins).
The slow route to Samut Songkhram
The most enjoyable way of travelling to Samut Songkhram is by train from Bangkok – a scenic, albeit rather convoluted, route that has three stages, involves going via Samut Sakhon and could take up to three hours. It’s a very unusual line, being single track and for much of its route literally squeezed in between homes, palms and mangroves, and, most memorably, between market stalls, so that at both the Samut Sakhon and Samut Songkhram termini the train really does chug to a standstill amid the trays of seafood.
Trains to Samut Sakhon leave approximately hourly from Bangkok’s Wongwian Yai station in southern Thonburi (which is within walking distance of Wongwian Yai Skytrain station), but for the fastest onward connections catch the 5.30am, 8.35am, 12.15pm or 3.25pm (1hr). The train pulls up right inside the wet market at Samut Sakhon, also known as Mahachai, where you need to take a ferry across the Maenam Tha Chin to get the connecting train from Ban Laem on the other bank. Once you’ve left the train, cross the track and continue in the same direction as the train was going, through a clothes market, until you emerge onto a shopping street. Cross the street to the five-storey, blue-painted Tarua Restaurant, right on the estuary, adjacent to the busy fishing port, where you’ll find two piers. Boats from both piers will get you across the river: those departing from the pier on the right of the restaurant are frequent but drop you directly across on the other bank, from where it’s a twenty-minute walk to Ban Laem station (turn right and walk upriver, past a Thai temple); boats from the pier on the left of the restaurant go direct to Ban Laem station (5min), but leave infrequently, being timed to coincide with the Ban Laem trains. There are only four trains a day in each direction from Ban Laem to Samut Songkhram at the end of the line (1hr), a journey through marshes, lagoons, prawn farms, salt flats and mangrove and palm growth. Once again, at Samut Songkhram, the station is literally enveloped by the town-centre market, with traders gathering up their goods and awnings from the trackside for the arrival and departure of the service.
Don Hoi Lot’s seafood restaurants
Seafood is the obvious regional speciality in these parts, with the most famous local dish being hoi lot pat cha, a spicy stir-fry that centres round the tubular molluscs, known as hoi lot or “worm shells”, that are harvested in their sackloads at low tide from a muddy sandbank known as Don Hoi Lot at the mouth of the Mae Khlong estuary. This is probably the most famous spot in the province to eat seafood, and a dozen restaurants occupy the area around the nearby pier, many offering views out over the Gulf and its bountiful sandbar. Don Hoi Lot is served by frequent songthaews from Samut Songkhram market (15–20min); the restaurants are usually open daily during daylight hours.
Longtail boat tours around Amphawa
On market days and during the week, when the waterways are far quieter, you can take a longtail boat tour around Amphawa (around B500/boat/hr) – boats wait on the canal, just over the bridge from the memorial park. If you get the chance, it’s well worth venturing out onto the canals after dark to watch the fireflies twinkling romantically in their favourite lamphu trees like delicate strings of fairylights; any boatman will ferry you to the right spot for around B60 per head, but you may need to link up with others to get a good price. For boat tours in quiet areas further from the town, contact staff at Baan Tai Had Resort or one of the nearby homestays.
Eng and Chang, the Siamese twins
Eng (In) and Chang (Chan), the “original” Siamese twins, were born in Samut Songkhram in 1811, when Thailand was known as Siam. The boys’ bodies were joined from breastbone to navel by a short fleshy ligament, but they shared no vital organs and eventually managed to stretch their connecting tissue so that they could stand almost side by side instead of permanently facing each other.
In 1824 the boys were spotted by entrepreneurial Scottish trader Robert Hunter, who returned five years later with an American sea merchant, Captain Abel Coffin, to convince the twins’ mother to let them take her sons on a world tour. Hunter and Coffin anticipated a lucrative career as producer-managers of an exotic freak show, and were not disappointed. They launched the twins in Boston, advertising them as “the Monster” and charging the public 50 cents to watch the boys demonstrate how they walked and ran. Though shabbily treated and poorly paid, the twins soon developed a more theatrical show, enthralling their audiences with acrobatics and feats of strength, and earning the soubriquet “the eighth wonder of the world”. At the age of 21, having split from their exploitative managers, the twins became self-employed, but continued to tour with other companies across the world. Wherever they went, they would always be given a thorough examination by local medics, partly to counter accusations of fakery, but also because this was the first time the world and its doctors had been introduced to conjoined twins. Such was the twins’ international celebrity that the term “Siamese twins” has been used ever since. Chang and Eng also sought advice from these doctors on surgical separation – an issue they returned to repeatedly right until their deaths but never acted upon, despite plenty of gruesome suggestions.
By 1840 the twins had become quite wealthy and decided to settle down. They were granted American citizenship, assumed the family name Bunker, and became slave-owning plantation farmers in North Carolina. Three years later they married two local sisters, Addie and Sally Yates, and between them went on to father 21 children. The families lived in separate houses and the twins shuttled between the two, keeping to a strict timetable of three days in each household; for an intriguing imagined account of this bizarre state of affairs, read Darin Strauss’s novel Chang and Eng. Chang and Eng had quite different personalities, and relations between the two couples soured, leading to the division of their assets, with Chang’s family getting most of the land, and Eng’s most of the slaves. To support their dependants, the twins were obliged to take their show back on the road several times, on occasion working with the infamous showman P.T. Barnum. Their final tour was born out of financial desperation following the 1861–65 Civil War, which had wiped out most of the twins’ riches and led to the liberation of all their slaves.
In 1874, Chang succumbed to bronchitis and died; Eng, who might have survived on his own if an operation had been performed immediately, died a few hours later, possibly of shock. They were 62. The twins are buried in White Plains in North Carolina, but there’s a memorial to them near their birthplace in Samut Songkhram, where a statue and the small, makeshift In-Chan Museum have been erected 4km north of the provincial capital’s centre on Thanon Ekachai.
Sangkhlaburi and around
Beyond Thong Pha Phum the views get increasingly spectacular as Highway 323 climbs through the remaining swathes of montane rainforest, occasionally hugging the eastern shore of the Vajiralongkorn Reservoir until 73km later it comes to an end at Sangkhlaburi (often called Sangkhla for short). In the early 1980s, the old town was lost under the rising waters of the newly created Khao Laem (now Vajiralongkorn) Reservoir. Its residents were relocated to the northeastern tip of the lake, beside the Songkalia River, where modern-day Sangkhla now enjoys an eerily beautiful view of semi-submerged trees and raft houses. It’s a tiny town with no unmissable attractions, but the atmosphere is pleasantly low-key and the best of the accommodation occupies scenic lakeside spots so it’s a great place to slow down for a while.
Cultural interest is to be found in the villages, markets and temples of the area’s Mon, Karen and Thai populations, including at Ban Waeng Ka across the water, and there’s natural beauty in various waterfalls, whitewater rivers and the remote Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. It sees relatively few farang tourists, but it’s a popular destination for weekending Thais (come during the week for better deals on accommodation) and resident NGO volunteers add a positive vibe. Though the Burmese border is just 22km away at Three Pagodas Pass, at the time of writing it was closed to foreigners.
The Mon in Thailand
Dubbed by some “the Palestinians of Asia”, the Mon people – numbering between two and four million in Burma and an estimated fifty thousand to two hundred thousand in Thailand (chiefly in the western provinces of Kanchanaburi and Ratchaburi, in the Gulf province of Samut Sakhon and in Nonthaburi and Pathum Thani, just north of Bangkok) – have endured centuries of persecution, displacement and forced assimilation.
Ethnologists speculate that the Mon originated either in India or Mongolia, travelling south to settle on the western banks of the Chao Phraya valley in the first century BC. Here they founded the Dvaravati kingdom (sixth to eleventh centuries AD), building centres at U Thong, Lopburi and Nakhon Pathom and later consolidating a northern kingdom in Haripunchai (modern-day Lamphun). They probably introduced Theravada Buddhism to the region, and produced some of the earliest Buddhist monuments, particularly Wheels of Law and Buddha footprints.
Over on the Burmese side of the border, the Mon kingdom had established itself around the southern city of Pegu well before the Burmese filtered into the area in the ninth century, but by the mid-eighteenth century they’d been stripped of their homeland and were once again relocating to Thailand. The Thais welcomed them as a useful source of labour, and in 1814 the future Rama IV arrived at the Kanchanaburi border with three royal warboats and a guard of honour to chaperone the exiles. Swathes of undeveloped jungle were given over to them, many of which are still Mon-dominated today.
The persecution of Burmese Mon continues to this day under Burma’s repressive regime (see Refugees from Burma: the Karen), and the Mon continue to struggle for the right to administer their own independent Mon State in their historical homelands opposite Kanchanaburi province in lower Burma. As one commentator has described it, while some of Burma’s ethnic minority groups seek to establish autonomy, the Mon are attempting to reclaim it. Though the New Mon State Party (NMSP) entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese junta in June 1995, international human-rights organizations continue to report gross violations against civilian Mon living in Burma. Thousands of Mon men, women and children have been press-ganged into unpaid labour, soldiers occupy certain Mon villages and commandeer produce and livestock, and reports of beatings and gang rapes are not uncommon. In an attempt to wipe out Mon culture, the junta has also banned the teaching of Mon language, literature and history in government schools, and outlawed the wearing of Mon national dress at official institutions.
Not surprisingly, Mon have been fleeing these atrocities in droves, the majority ending up in three resettlement camps in a Mon-controlled area along the Thai–Burma border, the biggest being Halockhani near Sangkhlaburi; the 11,000 Mon estimated to be living in these camps as of October 2011 have no right of entry into Thailand. For more information, see the website of the Human Rights Foundation of Monland (HURFOM; wrehmonnya.org).
Like Thais, the Mon are a predominantly Buddhist, rice-growing people, but they also have strong animist beliefs. All Mon families have totemic house spirits, such as the turtle, snake, chicken or pig, which carry certain taboos; if you’re of the chicken-spirit family, for example, the lungs and head of every chicken you cook have to be offered to the spirits, and although you’re allowed to raise and kill chickens, you must never give one away. Guests belonging to a different spirit group from their host are not allowed to stay overnight. Mon festivals also differ slightly from Thai ones – at Songkhran (Thai New Year), the Mon spice up the usual water-throwing and parades with a special courtship ritual in which teams of men and women play each other at bowling, throwing flirtatious banter along with their wooden discs.
Weaving for Women
A community project worth supporting in Sangkhlaburi is Weaving for Women, set up by a group of Karen refugees in 1989. Their Hilltribe Handicrafts shop carries a huge selection of hand-woven items, much of it in mut mee design and all of it made from good-quality Chiang Mai cotton, including tablecloths, sarongs, shirts and bags.
Little more than a roadside market, the village of BANG PA-IN, 60km north of Bangkok, has been put on the tourist map by its extravagant and rather surreal Royal Palace, even though most of the buildings can be seen only from the outside. King Prasat Thong of Ayutthaya first built a palace on this site, 20km downstream from his capital, in the middle of the seventeenth century, and it remained a popular country residence for the kings of Ayutthaya. The palace was abandoned a century later when the capital was moved to Bangkok, only to be revived in the middle of the nineteenth century when the advent of steamboats shortened the journey time upriver. Rama IV (1851–68) built a modest residence here, which his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V), in his passion for Westernization, knocked down to make room for the eccentric melange of European, Thai and Chinese architectural styles visible today.
Lopburi and around
Mention the name LOPBURI to a Thai and the chances are that he or she will start telling you about monkeys – the central junction in the old town of this unexceptional provincial capital, 150km due north of Bangkok, swarms with macaques. So beneficial are the beasts to the town’s tourist trade that a local hotelier treats six hundred of them to a sit-down meal at Phra Prang Sam Yod temple every November, complete with menus, waiters and napkins, as a thank you for their help. In fact, the monkeys can be a real nuisance, but at least they add some life to the town’s central Khmer buildings, which, though historically important, are rather unimpressive. More illuminating is the Narai National Museum, housed in a partly reconstructed seventeenth-century palace complex, and distant Wat Phra Phutthabat, a colourful eye-opener for non-Buddhists. Lopburi’s main festival is the five-day King Narai Reign Fair in February, which commemorates the seventeenth-century king’s birthday with costumed processions, cultural performances, traditional markets and a son et lumière show at Phra Narai Ratchanivet.
The old centre of Lopburi sits on an egg-shaped island between canals and the Lopburi River, with the rail line running across it from north to south. Thanon Vichayen, the main street, crosses the rail tracks at the town’s busiest junction before heading east – now called Thanon Narai Maharat – through the newest areas of development, via Sakeo roundabout and the bus station, towards Highway 1. All of the sights below are easily walkable from the train station; the best accommodation and most restaurants are set within the quiet, partly residential core between Phra Narai Ratchanivet to the west and Thanon Na Phra Karn to the east.
Originally called Lavo, Lopburi is one of the longest-inhabited towns in Thailand, and was a major centre of the Mon (Dvaravati) civilization from around the sixth century. It maintained a tenuous independence in the face of the advancing Khmers until as late as the early eleventh century, when it was incorporated into the empire as the provincial capital for much of central Thailand. Increasing Thai immigration from the north soon tilted the balance against the Khmers, and Lopburi was again independent from some time early in the thirteenth century until the rise of Ayutthaya in the middle of the fourteenth. Thereafter, Lopburi was twice used as a second capital, first by King Narai of Ayutthaya in the seventeenth century, then by Rama IV of Bangkok in the nineteenth, because its remoteness from the sea made it less vulnerable to European expansionists. Rama V downgraded the town, turning the royal palace into a provincial government office and museum; Lopburi’s modern role is as the site of several huge army barracks.
Wat Phra Phutthabat (Temple of the Buddha’s Footprint)
The most important pilgrimage site in central Thailand, Wat Phra Phutthabat is believed to house a footprint made by the Buddha.
The legend of Phra Phutthabat dates back to the beginning of the seventeenth century, when King Song Tham of Ayutthaya sent some monks to Sri Lanka to worship the famous Buddha’s footprint of Sumankut. To the monks’ surprise, the Sri Lankans asked them why they had bothered to travel all that way when, according to the ancient Pali scriptures, the Buddha had passed through Thailand and had left his footprint in their own backyard. As soon as Song Tham heard this he instigated a search for the footprint, which was finally discovered in 1623 by a hunter named Pram Bun, when a wounded deer disappeared into a hollow and then emerged miraculously healed. The hunter pushed aside the bushes to discover a foot-shaped trench filled with water, which immediately cured him of his terrible skin disease. A temple was built on the spot, but was destroyed by the Burmese in 1765 – the present buildings date from the Bangkok era.
A staircase flanked by nagas leads up to a marble platform, where an ornate mondop with mighty doors inlaid with mother-of-pearl houses the footprint, which in itself is not much to look at. Sheltered by a mirrored canopy, the stone print is nearly 2m long and obscured by layers of gold leaf presented by pilgrims; people also throw money into the footprint, some of which they take out again as a charm or merit object. The hill behind the shrine, which you can climb for a fine view over the gilded roofs of the complex to the mountains beyond, is covered in shrines. The souvenir village around the temple includes plenty of foodstalls for day-trippers.
The Festival of the Holy Footprint
During the dry season in January, February and March, a million pilgrims from all over the country flock to Wat Phra Phutthabat for the Ngan Phrabat (Festival of the Holy Footprint), when other pilgrims are making their way to the other major religious sites at Doi Suthep, Nakhon Si Thammarat and That Phanom. During the fair, which reaches its peak in two week-long lunar periods, one usually at the beginning of February, the other at the beginning of March, stalls selling souvenirs and traditional medicines around the entrance swell to form a small town, and traditional entertainments, magic shows and a Ferris wheel are laid on. The fair is still a major religious event, but before the onset of industrialization it was the highlight of social and cultural life for all ages and classes; it was an important place of courtship, for example, especially for women at a time when their freedom was limited. Another incentive for women to attend the fair was the belief that visiting the footprint three times would ensure a place in heaven – for many women, the Phrabat Fair became the focal point of their lives, as Buddhist doctrine allowed them no other path to salvation. Up to the reign of Rama V (1868–1910) even the king used to come, performing a ritual lance dance on elephant-back to ensure a long reign.
In the mid-thirteenth century, Sukhothai cemented its power by establishing several satellite towns, of which the most important was SI SATCHANALAI, 57km upriver from Sukhothai on the banks of the Yom. Now a UNESCO-listed historical park, the partially restored ruins of Muang Kao Si Satchanalai have a quieter ambience than the grander models at Sukhothai Historical Park, and the additional attractions of the riverside wat in nearby Chalieng, the Sangkhalok pottery kilns in Ban Ko Noi and the Sathorn Textile Museum in New Si Satchanalai combine to make the area worth exploring.
KAMPHAENG PHET, 77km south of Sukhothai, was probably founded in the fourteenth century by the kings of Sukhothai as a buffer city between their capital and the increasingly powerful city-state of Ayutthaya. Strategically sited 100m from the east bank of the Ping, the ruined old city has, like Sukhothai and Si Satchanalai before it, been partly restored and opened to the public as a historical park and is similarly listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The least visited of the three, it rivals Si Satchanalai for your attention mainly because of the untamed setting and the gracefully weathered statues of its main temple. A new city has grown up on the southeastern boundaries of the old, the usual commercial blandness offset by a riverside park, plentiful flowers and an unusual number of historic wooden houses dotted along the main thoroughfares. You can even swim off an island in the middle of the river, accessible via a footbridge near Soi 21, a few hundred metres south of the night market. With a few days in the area, you can spend time bird-watching or rafting in the nearby national parks.
Mae Sot and the border
Located just 6km from Burma, and 100km west of Tak, MAE SOT is very much a border town, populated by a rich ethnic mix of Burmese, Karen, Hmong and Thais (plus a lively injection of committed NGO expats). It is dependent on its thriving trade in Burmese gems and teak as well as, reportedly, on an even more lucrative cross-border black market in drugs, labourers and sex workers. For the casual visitor, however, it’s a relaxed place to hang out, with a burgeoning number of good restaurants to enjoy, albeit no real sights. The short ride to the border market provides additional, if low-key, interest, and there are several caves and waterfalls within day-tripping distance.
Mae Sot’s main selling point, though, is as a stopover on the way to Umphang, a remote village 164km further south, which is starting to get a name as a centre for interesting rafting and trekking adventures. The journey to Umphang takes at least four hours in a bumpy songthaew, so it’s usually worth staying the night in Mae Sot; you can also organize treks to Umphang through Mae Sot tour operators. If you need to change money for the trip, you should do so in Mae Sot as there are no exchange facilities anywhere in Umphang.
Over the last two decades the Burmese population of Mae Sot and its environs has swelled enormously (see Refugees from Burma: the Karen) and the Burmese influence in Mae Sot is palpable in everything from food to fashions; many of the guesthouses are run by Burmese staff, who often speak good English, and the only real sights in the town are its handful of glittering Burmese-style temples.
Helping Mae Sot’s Burmese refugees
There are currently five camps for refugees from Burma along the border to the north and south of Mae Sot, and Mae Sot itself is the headquarters for many related international aid projects; most of these organizations welcome donations and some are happy to receive visitors and even short-term volunteers; ask at Ban Thai guesthouse, Borderline shop and at Krua Canadian and Bai Fern restaurants. One of the most famous organizations in Mae Sot is the Mae Tao clinic, which provides free medical care for around 150,000 Burmese migrants and refugees a year, focusing on those who fall outside the remit of the camps and cannot use the Thai health system. The clinic was founded in 1989 by a Karen refugee, Dr Cynthia, who has won several prestigious international awards for her work; her clinic also trains and equips “backpack teams” of mobile medics who spend months travelling through the Burmese jungle providing healthcare to internally displaced peoples. To help the clinic by giving blood or financial aid, visit the office inside the clinic compound on Thanon Indharakiri. The clinic also runs a primary and secondary school and welcomes volunteer health-workers and teachers who can commit for several months.
Refugees from Burma: the Karen
With a population of five to seven million, the Karen are Burma’s largest ethnic minority, but their numbers have offered no protection against persecution by the Burmese. This mistreatment has been going on for centuries, and entered a new phase after Burma won its independence from Britain in 1948. Unlike many other groups in Burma, the Karen had remained loyal to the British during World War II and were supposed to have been rewarded with autonomy when Britain pulled out; instead they were left to battle for that themselves. Fourteen years after the British withdrawal, the Burmese army took control, setting up an isolationist state run under a bizarre ideology compounded of militarist, socialist and Buddhist principles. In 1988, opposition to this junta peaked with a series of pro-democracy demonstrations that were suppressed by the slaughter of thousands.
In subsequent elections an overwhelming majority voted for the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, recipient of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. In response, the military placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest (where she remained until 2010) and declared all opposition parties illegal. The disenfranchised MPs then joined the thousands of ordinary citizens who, in the face of the savagery of the Burmese militia against the country’s minorities, had fled east to jungle camps along the Thai border and beyond, into Thailand itself. Common tactics employed by the Burmese army against minority groups include the forcible razing and relocation of villages, systematic murder, rape and robbery, and the rounding-up of slave labour.
Despite positive steps in a nationwide peace process, which has seen numerous ceasefires signed since late 2011, clashes continue to erupt between government forces and armed factions of some minority groups. The Karen people, whose homeland state of Kawthulay borders northwest Thailand from Mae Sariang down to Three Pagodas Pass, are among those affected. Despite signing a ceasefire, the Karen National Union (KNU), which has an armed wing, was involved in skirmishes with Burmese government troops as recently as March 2012. (The Karen are distinct from the Karenni, or Red Karen, whose homeland is north of Kawthulay and borders Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province.)
As a result of these conflicts, as many as one thousand Burmese are thought to flee across the Thai border every month, the majority of them Karen. For many years Thai government policy has been to admit only those who are fleeing active fighting, not human rights violations. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and has no legal framework for processing asylum seekers. The hundreds of thousands who have left their homeland because of politically induced economic hardship – forced labour, theft of their land and livestock, among other factors – must therefore either try to enter the refugee camps illegally, or attempt to make a living as migrant workers. There are between two and three million migrants from Burma currently in Thailand. Without refugee status, these exiles are extremely vulnerable to abuse, both from corrupt officials and from exploitative employers. In Mae Sot, for example, where Burmese migrants are a mainstay of the local economy, many of them are reportedly paid as little as B70 a day (less than half the regional minimum wage) to work in the worst jobs available, in gem and garment factories, and as prostitutes. Demands for better wages and improved conditions, however, nearly always result in deportation.
Reactions in the Thai press to Burmese refugees are mixed, with humanitarian concerns tempered by economic hardships in Thailand and by high-profile cases of illegal Burmese workers involved in violent crimes and drug-smuggling (Burma is now one of the world’s leading producers and smugglers of methamphetamines, also known as ya baa, or Ice, much of which finds its way into Thailand).
Even if you don’t fancy doing a trek, consider making the spectacular trip 164km south from Mae Sot to the village of UMPHANG, both for the stunning mountain scenery you’ll encounter along the way, and for the buzz of being in such an isolated part of Thailand. Surrounded by mountains and situated at the confluence of the Mae Khlong and Umphang rivers, Umphang itself is small and very quiet, made up of little more than a thousand or so wooden houses and a wat. It won’t take long to explore the minute grid of narrow roads that bisects the village, but independent tourists are still relatively rare here, so communication could be a challenge. Bring some warm clothes as it can get pretty cool at night and in the early mornings – and the songthaew ride along the Sky Highway from Mae Sot is often windy.
Trekking around Umphang
Unlike treks further north around Chiang Mai, treks around Umphang are more about wilderness than hill-tribe villages and are far more popular with Thai tourists than farangs. The big highlight is the three-tiered, 200m-high Tee Lor Su Waterfall (Nam Tok Thilawsu), star feature of the Umphang Wildlife Sanctuary (entry B200), which, unusually for Thailand, flows all year round. It’s at its most thunderous just after the rainy season in November, when it can extend to a dramatic 400m across. During this period you can swim in the beautifully blue lower pool, but trails can still be muddy, which makes for tough going; trek leaders recommend wearing rubber boots (best bought in Mae Sot, as they’re hard to find in Umphang). One stretch of the route becomes so muddy during and just after the rainy season that it’s impassable to human feet and needs to be done on elephant-back, a pretty uncomfortable ride of three to four hours. Nonetheless, the best season for trekking is November through February, even if the nights get pretty chilly. From December to April (the dry season), it’s usually possible to climb to one of the waterfall’s upper tiers, mud permitting. Around the falls, the vegetation is mainly montane forest, home to numerous varieties of orchid, and plenty of commonly encountered monkeys and hornbills, plus an elusive band of wild elephants.
Access to the falls is strictly controlled by national park rangers, who forbid people from taking food or plastic water bottles beyond the ranger station and campsite, which is 1.5km from the falls. As yet, the number of visitors is reasonably small – except on public holidays, during school holidays and on some weekends, when Thai trippers flood the area. Visitors reach Tee Lor Su Falls either via a fairly challenging combination of rafting and walking, or by using the road to the ranger station (4WD only), which may be impassable between June and November. If you can take this road route, you’ll only have to walk the 1.5km route from the station to the falls. Some tour operators offer the car-plus-hike option as a day-trip from Umphang, usually throwing in a rafting session as well.
A typical trek to Tee Lor Su lasts three days and follows something like this increasingly standard itinerary. Day one: rafting down the Mae Khlong River via Tee Lor Jor Falls and some striking honeycombed cliffs; then a 9km trek (3hr) to the official campsite near Tee Lor Su Falls. Day two: morning at the falls, then a two-hour trek to a homestay at the Karen village of Khotha. Day three: a three-hour elephant ride (or trek) to Mae Lamoong junction; return to Umphang by car. Some trekkers find the three-day itinerary too baggy, with quite a lot of empty time at day’s end (bring a book), so if you want a more challenging experience try to persuade your trekking agency to cover the same itinerary in two days. Prices start at about B2700 per person (B3200 with elephant riding) for the two-day Tee Lor Su trek (minimum two people) or B3000/3500 for three days. Add about B1000 per person for treks arranged in Mae Sot. Prices do vary between operators: smaller outfits can’t afford to undercut the big operators and cost savings can mean lower wages – and morale – for guides. In Umphang the best time to contact trek leaders at the smaller outfits is often after about 4pm, when they’ve returned from their last trip. Guides should provide tents, bedrolls, mosquito nets and sleeping bags, plus food and drinking water; trekkers may be asked to help carry some of the gear.
Although Tee Lor Su is the most famous destination in the Umphang area, other programmes are available on request. From June to October there’s whitewater rafting from the Karen village of Umphang Khi via the forty-plus rapids of the Umphang River, which can also include a fairly long trek and a night in the village. Alternatively, there are one- and two-day rafting trips to Thi Lor Leh Falls, which involve four to eight hours’ rafting (depending on water levels) via a series of cataracts along the Mae Khlong River, and the possibility of a seven-hour trek on the second day. For bird-spotting, ask about trips to Thung Yai Naresuan.
Top image: Waterfall in forest at Erawan Waterfall National Park near Kanchanaburi © PhilipYb Studio/Shutterstock